Making a Mark

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

These extraordinary pictures are by Caroline Fellowes, an artist who lives in France but is represented by a gallery in Derry, in Northern Ireland.   They are wonderful things, and I post them today because they happen to sit right in the middle of a number of conversations I seem to be having with increasingly frequency of late. Fellowes’ series here is made to face a perennial challenge in photography — one which I have approached from different angles on this blog several times in the past. Fellowes’ pictures (they’re called Animal Vegetable Mineral) record the marks made on her windows by a number of different agencies: heat, plants brushing against the glass, cold, limescale, water, the tracks of various kinds of animals, fingers… Naturally, they are visible only in certain lights, at the right angles, and for a particular time. They come and go, too: smear marks in condensation today will re-appear in tomorrow’s condensation, even though they seemed to have gone when the pane was dry. Not only are they photographs in fact — beautiful fancy digital prints on water-colour paper, since you ask — but that temporary quality makes them wholly photographic in conception, too. So much photography is about seizing what will not otherwise stay, or seeing what cannot otherwise be seen.

Yet the pictures in Animal Vegetable Mineral are in one other important sense antithetical to core photographic values, too. These take great store by the business of mark making which is normally absent in conventional photography. To that extent, they have more to do with painting, and indeed Fellowes is a distinguished painter as well as a photographer and knows very well what she’s about in that regard.

In Fellowes’ AVM series, the marks are made by outside forces. I believe some of the footprints are of frogs. In other work the artist often makes them. My colleague at the University of Brighton, Johanna Love, gave a brilliant seminar presentation on these kinds of ideas the other day. Love is a print-maker in various different kinds of process (including photography). She’s interested in the variety of marks that can intervene even in a carefully controlled sequence: she has photographed pencil markings at huge magnifications to see the landscape of pits and peaks which make hand-made marks so attractive. She draws on photographs and likes the way that when the light strikes the greasy pencil markings you can’t see the print beneath. She grew interested in the dust that interposed itself between scanner and subject if the subject was raised a little from the scanner bed — until that dust could itself be a legitimate subject. She had tracked the antecedents of some of this thinking in close detail: I’d not come across an interesting book of Xerox ‘drawings’ she mentioned by Ian Burn, for example, in which the marks are the marks of the process itself. When she referred back to Duchamp and Man Ray in regard to dust, I was on familiar ground. She made a lot of reference to Helen Chadwick, whose combination of machine-made and hand-made was absolutely pioneering.

Ian McKeever. Shade and Darkness-Evening 1983. From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Ian McKeever.
Shade and Darkness – Evening 1983.
From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Not long before that I took part in a round-table discussion at Somerset House, one of a series leading up to the PhotoLondon fair in May 2015. It was led by the artist Ian McKeever. His title? Against Photography. He meant it in both senses: against meaning leaning against or next to, as well as counter to or opposing.

McKeever with impressive articulacy laid out some of his own trajectories to and from photography. McKeever is a wonderful painter, taking as much pleasure in the physical acts of painting as he does in any communication that results from it. The discussion was driven mainly by a very fine publication (half-way between catalogue and monograph, the first of a new series called Imprint) produced by McKeever’s gallery, HackelBury, in West London. McKeever was outspoken in some of what he had to say.   He has no doubt about the intrinsic primacy of paint over photography as a vehicle for thought. Given that he is a long-time and highly skilled practitioner of photography (and one who has written on it very well) I was surprised by how categorical he was. But he was, and mainly because of the fundamental importance to him of making marks. He had other arguments: he stressed that painting takes time and that time allows the painter to distill thought into the artefact, something that cannot be done at the 125th of a second at which photography operates.

“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.

It was a terrific performance, and compelling.

I remain unconvinced, I must say, by this notion of painters ‘inflecting’ meaning into what they do. They’re supposed to, sure enough. But many inflect only their own interest, their enthusiasm or their patience. If the formal instant of making ( or taking ) a photograph is too short to allow for much of that, the ancillary processes, of editing and arranging and printing in different ways allow for just as much. At one point McKeever contrasted painters trying to slow the world down against photographers trying to speed it up. The surfaces of photography are – I have written it before ­– skiddy, slippery. The eye tends to bounce off a photograph, having seized what quick meaning it can on the way. I’m not sure conventional photographers try to speed the world up – but they certainly make objects which are consumed at lightning speed. Photography is very good at making posters. One message: get it, and go. Contemplation, a combination of multiple meanings or the enjoyment of multiple – maybe even contradictory – sensations are not readily included in that.

Gerhard Richter.  Firenze 2000

Gerhard Richter.
Firenze 2000

John Stezaker. Mask XLVI, 2007

John Stezaker.
Mask XLVI, 2007

My own take on it is not quite so simple as a direct contrast between the marklessness of photography and the richer textures of paint or other systems which reveal the hand of the maker.   Gerhard Richter worked all around this question: he did blob paint on the surface of photographs, with wonderful effects on each, but it was not his only solution. Lots of photographers have found ways to build illusions of depth or surface texture without any physical lilt to the surface at all. It has been one of the challenges that photography has faced best and longest. Montage, double-exposure, collage: all of those can do it. Part of the problem is that photographs are so often reproduced and that somehow we don’t think that makes any difference. See a Monet reproduced and you know that you’re seeing a shorthand version of the thing. A re-photographed John Stezaker will have an unbroken surface throughout. The ‘originals’ of such things as his have physical shifts to the surface: jumps and cuts and bumps and ruts where one surface meets another or overlays it. Such pieces are very often re-photographed. Sometimes they lose a lot, sometimes they don’t.

Sohei Nishino. Jerusalem,

Sohei Nishino.
Jerusalem, 2013.

The dioramas of Sohei Nishino definitely lose something in their re-photographed editions. The whole point is that they were not made by a single glance. Seen as hundreds of little views, they compete to tell their little stories, but also add up to more than the sum of their parts. They’re like a mediaeval map, slipping from one perspective to another, jumping from middle-distance to near and from scale to scale. Seen as a single slick carpet, they lose a lot of that jostling energy: they become more like a page of results from a Google image search, flat, with less connection from one picture to another.

Jorma Puranen. From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Jorma Puranen.
From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Santeri Tuori.  Sky #7, 2011–2012

Santeri Tuori.
Sky #7, 2011–2012

I’ve written before about Jorma Puranen’s wonderful series of old masters – Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing – in which the slicks of light that get in the way of seeing the whole picture all at once become themselves a subject. Puranen reflects on reflection. His fellow Finn Santeri Tuori does something parallel when he builds up his skies of dozens, maybe hundreds of layers piled up electronically, in imitation of the hundreds of thousands of separate condensation events that go up to make each cloud. Puranen’s series works all right in reproduction, and therefore on screen, too. Tuori’s makes almost no sense unless you can see the print itself.

Elsewhere, but still on this blog, I wrote about the marking James Newton found on the backs of Ford Transit vans (and – credit where credit’s due, it was pointed out that Adam O’Meara had done something pretty similar before).

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011. By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge Styling Robbie Spencer Artwork Maurizio Anzeri Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada Casting Edward Kim at House Casting It's a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri's work.  He's done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.  All those other  people are hitching a free ride on that one person's work.

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011.
By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge
Styling Robbie Spencer
Artwork Maurizio Anzeri
Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management
Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics
Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg
Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley
Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato
Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada
Casting Edward Kim at House Casting
It’s a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri’s work. He’s done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.
All those other people are hitching a free ride on that one person’s work.

Julie Cockburn.  An Inkling.

Julie Cockburn.
An Inkling.

Calum Colvin has been working his whole life at a lovely waltz between two dimensions and three. Much later Maurizio Anzeri and Julie Cockburn are doing something connected to that.

I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph. Come to think of it, I suppose that’s what’s at play with a really fine print, too, even if it has the most traditional surface, acting merely as a window does. A great print has depths. It gives to the view it contains a quality which I can describe only as ocular weight. That’ll hold you there a while. We all know the feeling of finding a really great print more interesting than the scene within it. Reproduce it, in print or online, and that is destroyed.

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere,  2001  From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere, 2001
From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending – a series I keep coming back to and which has slowly crept its way up my own internal league tables of photographs – has lots of things about it, but in this context it has both the careful ( and appropriate ) attention to surface (they’re photogravures) and the hand-written notes apparently carved into the surface. They are layered intellectually, seemingly physically, too; they’re even layered as narratives or pseudo-narratives. You may or may not like them as much as I do, but you won’t just glance at them and go.

That is the challenge for photographers. I’m coming around to thinking it a far more central challenge than I had realised. If you’re a jobbing photographer or a craftsman or a ‘professional’ or what I have begun to think of as a camera operator, you want to make crisp clear messages that are simple and linear. Those can be grasped as quickly as you like, and their surfaces can be slick. Christiano Ronaldo scores a goal. The graduating student in a rented gown. No complex messaging needed, or even welcome. But any photographer who wants to send out more complex messages has to find a way to keep the eye of the viewer on the surface of that print for longer. That’s what every single one of the people here is doing. It’s plain. A photograph which offers no solution to the problem of the eye sliding off it will never be capable of transmitting very sophisticated or complex messages, however much its maker tries.

Solve that, in whatever way that you can, and a photograph can bear as much ‘inflected’ meaning as any other medium. But since that eye-retaining or eye-detaining surface is so much at risk in reproduction, it becomes easy for an Ian McKeever to say photography can’t do what other systems, more recognized for mark making, can do.

Michael Wolf. Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Michael Wolf.
Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Richard Learoyd. Harmony White Shirt, 2011

Richard Learoyd.
Harmony White Shirt, 2011

David Hockney.  Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1985

David Hockney.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1985

There have been hundreds of solutions. I wrote once about Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series, in the best of which the condensation on glass acts as a surface, which is readable two ways: metaphorically, it looks like the spirit of the crushed commuters, weeping and seeping out. Practically, it reminds us that tropical climates are physically hard to endure. At his best, Richard Learoyd achieves with his hand-built cameras an incredible trick of imitating the act of looking very hard. He seems to make pictures which have peripheral vision built into them, as if he had already committed you to staring at the bits he cared about. Katerina Jebb achieved something similar by a wholly different technique in her show at Arles in 2014 – when she found depth of field enough by using a hand-held scanner to move around her sitters, making a sort of haze of doubt which became a haze of wonder. David Hockney spoke very clearly in his Bradford lecture long ago about how his Joiners imitated the staccato jumping of the eye within the frame that is standard in paint but rare in photography. Indeed, he has gone on exploring that same idea for many years; the gridded-videos moving down the lanes in East Yorkshire do much the same thirty (or whatever it is) years on.

Mining in the Ore Mountains,  by Josef Koudleka. From the Black Triangle, 1992

Mining in the Ore Mountains,
by Josef Koudleka.
From the Black Triangle, 1992

Lee Freidlander. Montana 2008. From America by Car

Lee Freidlander.
Montana 2008.
From America by Car

Even with no such complexities of surface, a photographer can do things with composition itself to hold the eye in place: the classic example would be Josef Koudelka’s panoramas, which seem almost to build a maze or circuit of blocks of darkness that we cannot pass except in an order chosen by Koudelka. But a panorama is peculiar anyway: it is rarely possible to see a whole panorama at once: the shape itself holds the eye there a while. Friedlander’s tour-de-force pictures through (and of) car windows do it in a completely different way.

It may be that one of the reasons we ( or certainly I ) enjoy battered old photographs is wrapped up in this same connection. A picture, which shows upon itself the marks of how it got to be what it now is, has acquired another layer. That layer may be no more than survival: but that’s not nothing. Even a trivial survivor has absorbed a certain amount of time. That’s what we mean by patina, and it’s partly why the myriad examples of re-mining or repurposing old archives going on at the moment are so interesting: old vernacular has depth, just by dint of that battered surface.

Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.

W.G.Sebald – Not so Great with Pictures

On 14 November 1997, W.G.Sebald, in a beautiful but curiously frustrating interview with Christian Scholz, answered a question put to him as follows:

WGS:  Strange things happen when you aimlessly wander through the world, when you go somewhere and then just want to see what happens next.  Then things happen that no-one is going to believe later. And what comes next is very important: it is necessary to somehow capture and document these things.  Of course, you can do this through writing, but the written word is not a true document, after all.  The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.

He went on to describe a particular night at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam:

WGS: I have actually found myself in this situation on several occasions. Again and again there are situations where you think that this is impossible, that it cannot be, [situations] where you would really have to take this snapshot. For example, it happened to me recently at the Amsterdam airport; when I had to sleep there overnight because the entire airport was fogged in and none of the planes could take off, after midnight everyone was stretched out horizontally on these sofas on the upper floor of the departure lounge. They were covered with the kind of thin blue blankets provided to the campers by KLM. An extremely ghostly scenario – human beings that, laid out like the dead, were lying curled up on their side or very rigidly on their back. And outside, through the windowpane, was the mirror-image of the interior.

From such constellations arise possibilities about which you can then reflect. And they can be verified only through an image that was taken. Otherwise, you think , oh well, that’s yet another extravagance of this writer, who came up with it,  who extends the line of what  happens in reality in order to get something out of a work with a certain meaningfulness or symbolic value. But these images are actually there.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Christian Scholz asked him:

CS: Does that mean that you see the image only as a fragment of narrative?

WGS:  Yes. It can be a landscape, a person, an interior. But that’s something that drives me to look more carefully into these things. For me it has an effect that is familiar from my childhood: there were these ‘Viewmasters’ into which you could look. You had the feeling that with the body you are still in your normal bourgeois reality. With the eyes, however, you are already in an entirely different place: in Rio de Janeiro or at the passion plays in Oberammergau or whatever else could be seen at that moment. I always have the feeling with photographs that they exert a pull on the viewer and in this entirely amazing (ungeheure) manner draw him out, so to speak, from the real world into an unreal world, that is the world of which one doesn’t exactly know how it is constituted but of which one senses that it is there.

CS: Or at least that it was there.

 WGS: Correct.  But the fact remains: each image interrogates us, speaks to us, calls to us.

 So he went on, meandering around and saying these oddly banal things. Yes, sometimes you see things that one wouldn’t quite believe without a photograph to confirm them.  It’s a cliché that witnesses to exceptional happenings frequently fall back on “It was like a picture” or it was “like a film” to underline the exceptionality of what they saw. Yes, a picture can set off a train of thought.  Yes, of course, a picture can transport one in imagination….Sebald said some mildly interesting things about Kafka and pictures, and he said one really very odd thing about how the grey areas in pictures, neither black nor white, represented purgatory, this vast no-man’s-land where people “were permanently wandering around and where one did not know how long one had to stay there,  whether this was a purgatory in the Christian sense or just a kind of desert that one had to traverse before one reached the other side.”

Apart from that outburst, it was banal.  And yet.  In that interview (which I have only just read) Sebald confirmed something that I had long noticed in his books, but never quite put my finger on.  Sebald’s use of photographs in his texts seems so exciting, when you discover that the poorly reproduced, apparently captionless picture you’ve been wondering about has in fact been captioned by several pages of text. But Sebald had consistently removed authorship from photographs.  Pictures were either his own (as several are acknowledged to be in his books) or they were just grist.  No matter what the provenance, no matter that the author (or a probable author, a near-identified author) was actually known, Sebald preferred his pictures anonymous and would strip an author away from them if they weren’t.

Look again at the various passages I’ve quoted above (I’m sorry they’re so long).  They’re amazingly, stultifyingly, conventional.  It’s a revelation.  Sebald, who in his writing with radical grace blurred the distinctions between novel and memoir, history, travel writing and journalism, that Sebald, the insouciant funambulist between fact and fiction, could be, when it came to photographs, a plodding bore.

The interview is in a dense and intermittently interesting book[i] whose subtitle is Photography after W.G.Sebald.  It’s a given. Sebald was a wizard with words so it stands to reason:  he must have changed the way we deal with photographs, too.  Only it’s false.  He did nothing of the sort.  He’d read his Barthes and that’s about it.  He used pictures as unattributable gobbets of fact upon which to hang the whirling tangos of his written allusions.  The very idea that a photographer might himself have been able to make metaphors escaped him completely.  Because in the end, even for a writer as free as W. G. Sebald, the superiority of the writer over other artists is inalienable and needs no proof.

I have a paperback of John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket.  It’s a collection of essays, not quite Berger’s finest, but containing – as you’d expect – a lot of very good stuff.  The cover (it was published by Bloomsbury in 2002) shows a picture by Peter Marlow.  I did a little double-take when I saw it: it’s cropped, and clumsily.  You expect that from publishers.  They treat pictures, as Sebald does, as grist.  But to crop this one, here, that takes some doing.

I’m not a blind fan of Magnum, an institution whose glorious left-wing shirt is getting threadbare.  Magnum now is not so exceptional, a commercial picture agency with a rich archive, but all the same… Whatever the corporate failings, it still does have more than a few photographers who know their arse from their elbow, and Marlow is one of them.  Marlow has been President of Magnum more than once.  He’s a craftsman and an artist and a man who has found ways of saying important things in photographs. For a commercial designer at Bloomsbury simply to crop one of his pictures badly is one thing:  it must have happened to Marlow before, and it will happen to him again.  But on the cover of a book by Berger?  That same John Berger who in dozens of essays has honoured photographs as so much more worthy of reflection than his generation had realised?

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, Primrose Hill, London 1999.

The picture is called The Eclipse, and it was made on Primrose Hill, in London, in 1999 when there was a full eclipse of the sun. The same Primrose Hill that nearly saw an eclipse in 1963 when Bill Brandt had Francis Bacon walking down it, when the three little park lights could only just hold their own against one of Brandt’s darkest skies

The Berger book contains eight details culled from Marlow’s photograph, scattered as ‘frontispieces’ to various essays in the text.  Again, the cuts are made with a kind of numbness that slightly beggars belief.  I hope – I really hope – that neither Marlow nor Berger made them.  But I can’t believe that either could have done.  Not all essays get one. There seems very little direct reference when they do. None carries a caption;  you have to search in the boring ‘legal details’ at the front of the book for a tiny credit that covers them all.  None necessarily refers to – let alone illustrates – the text it accompanies.  This is “photography after Sebald” with a vengeance.  The pictures, made not by a photographer but by a designer using him only as a supply of raw material, are allusive, but only ponderously so.  A very largely white crowd, obviously waiting, with odd episodes of blurred movement or interesting collisions if you look closely. Opposite a page entitled Michelangelo is a blurred figure more obviously connected to Francis Bacon than anything Michelangelo ever did.  A dullard in a black tee-shirt videos him. The faces, and sometimes the bodies, are turned in various directions.  This is the kind of incidental interest you get if you look with attention at any busy photograph, perhaps a little more closely than usual, or perhaps with a lens.

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 1

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 2

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 3

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 4

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 5

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 6

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 7

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 8

They are nice enough, these slices taken from the larger picture. It’s a good crowd scene, no doubt about it, well made and well seen at a time of cross-tensions and cross-purposes. It’s never a bad thing to look more carefully at a good photograph. This one reminds me a bit of that other crowd-scene, also on a hill, that Robert Doisneau made in 1947, Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly. The skyline is made of the same human palisade.

Robert Doisneau. Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly, 1947.

But you know what?  They wouldn’t have used Marlow’s (again and again in the same book) if it had been called ‘Crowd waiting for the off at the Derby’ or ‘Crowd waiting for the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war demonstration’.  They wouldn’t have used the Doisneau, come to that. It is pathetic, but there is something about the cheap ‘cosmic’ meaning of an eclipse which is supposed to add a little pepper to the Berger book. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell by looking at it that it was made before an eclipse. Marlow’s title, The Eclipse, is never given in Berger’s paperback.  But the smell of the eclipse is purported to linger on it. The whole crew of designer, editor, publisher, and perhaps author, who all knew the title, felt its magic still. That’s the legacy of Sebald, if you like. It is so reactionary it’s appalling:  it’s a photograph being chopped up and used not for its (very interesting and skilfully achieved) visual content but for the cheap scent of its title lingering on. Blimey, Mr. Berger.  How ever did that little demonstration of contempt for photography go out over your name?

This is visual Muzak.  It’s using the barest bones of Marlow’s work – an expectant crowd – to offer a gentle pause between the supposedly arduous heights of Berger’s sensitivity.  At the very most, it makes some oblique claim that all of us, every member of every crowd, are implied or addressed in Berger’s critique of the visual. Dozens of people have reworked photographs with more zest and sparkle than this.  At the high end, look only to Gerhard Richter or Thomas Demand or John Stezaker or Maurizio Anzeri or Julie Cockburn.  Or look on any teenager’s bedroom door.  Pictures do get another life when found, graffitied, snipped, decorated, jammed up against unlikely neighbours.  Even W. G. Sebald admitted as much.  But they don’t get that life simply because the title alludes to something which might have rich metaphorical content.  Pictures are pictures, not shorthand for words.

 

 

[i] ‘But the Written Word is not a True Document’. A conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photography, by Christian Scholtz, translated by Markus Zisselsberger.

Published in Searching for Sebald : photography after W.G. Sebald. Edited by Lise Patt, with Christel Dillbohner, Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles , 2007.